CEO Learns the Secret of Sales Presentations…the Hard Way

In business, a persistent fact of life is that sales people sell features rather than benefits. This practice loses potential customers—and even worse, the sale.  The same practice occurs in pitches, where presenters speak all about themselves—their products and/or their companies—and lose their audience.

Jeff Lawson learned this the hard way. He’s the CEO of Twilio, a San Francisco start-up company that is building the future of business communications by enabling phones, VoIP, and messaging to be embedded into web, desktop, and mobile software. In the October issue of Inc. magazine, Mr. Lawson describes how his early pitches to raise financing were met with stiff resistance from venture capitalists.

Puzzled at the rejection of what he was confident was a company with great technology and great potential, he sought answers from the undisputed king of pitches, Steve Jobs.  Mr. Lawson set about watching several of Mr. Jobs’ keynotes and “studied how he set the stage [by] describing the state of the world as you know it, and why it sucks. And then, boom—he gives you the answer to a problem you didn’t know you had until five minutes ago.”

Then and there Mr. Lawson discovered two essential elements of every presentation: put your audience first and tell your story in a meaningful progression, a logical flow. First establish a need and then demonstrate how your solution fulfills that need. In plain terms, tell the investor audience that there is a market opportunity and then tell them how your company is uniquely positioned to leverage that opportunity.

In even plainer terms, sell the benefits, not the features. Mr. Lawson had been pitching the features of his company, not why those features are important to his investor audience. Using the lesson he learned from Mr. Jobs, Mr. Lawson switched the sequence of his pitch and started with the potential of providing “a way for buyers to talk to sellers online…how any industry could use a way to communicate with customers online. Finally, [he] explained how Twilio fills that hole.”

In the transformation, Mr. Lawson made his pitch all about his audience. He then told his story in a logical progression, starting with the unmet need for online communication in commerce and then moving on to how Twilio’s technology fulfills that need. As he summarized the shift, “The point isn’t how our product works. What matters is what it can do. That story arc makes a huge difference.”

And a big difference it made indeed—the company has since raised $103 million of financing.

Think of your story as an arc with a beginning, middle, and end; and that the line that connects these essential elements has a clear and meaningful progression.

Go with the flow.

About the Author:

Jerry Weissman is principal of Power Presentations Ltd, a company that offers presentation coaching to enhance corporate value. Based on his experience as a producer at WCBS-TV in New York City, Weissman developed a unique methodology and set of techniques to help presenters and speakers clear their minds by organizing their content and deliver it as a series of conversations rather than as performances. Weissman also is author of a number of best-selling books on presentation skills, the latest being In the Line of Fire: How to Handle Tough Questions–When it Counts. This blog also ran in Forbes magazine.

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